Escape to Thailand’s South-East Coastal Islands

Koh Phangan
Thong Nai Pan Yai

I’ve decided I need two summers a year if at all possible! Psychologically and physically I feel healthier in warmer climes and sunshine and going 8 months a year without either is just too long.

We’ve been to Thailand several times now and it really does tick all our boxes for the perfect holiday. Being “flashpackers”, budget is a big deal to us.

Thailand is excellent value for money. In Thailand we can afford to stay in nicer accommodation and do more things because our money goes further.

I long to get back to the Thai islands again. We had a wonderful trip to Koh Phangan and Koh Tao several years ago and it has definitely left me with a yearning to go back.

The best time to visit the islands on the Gulf of Thailand side is during the hot, dry season between January and April. Visiting between May and September is also good but you will typically get some rain in the afternoons. October through December is monsoon season.

Getting to Koh Phangan

After several days in Bangkok we caught an overnight train from BK south to Surat Thani. The plan was to catch the ferry to Koh Phangan the next morning. On arrival at Surat Thani in the morning you catch a public bus from the train terminal into Surat Thani, then a 45 minute bus ride from Surat Thani to the ferry jetty and then the ferry ride takes about 3 hours. However this is S-E Asia and things often don’t go quite to plan. The train was delayed at several points along the route and we missed the connection to our morning ferry. We had to wait several more more hours in the heat before we could catch the next ferry. We were saving money including a night’s accommodation by taking the train but in retrospect I don’t think it was worth it. I don’t sleep well on trains and was no doubt scratchy the next day, especially when things went wrong. In future we’ll probably fly to Koh Samui and then ferry across to Koh Phangan when we’re ready. There are flights from BK to Surat Thani but there is still the rigmarole of catching a bus from the airport into Surat Thani and then another to the ferry. The same goes if you take the bus down from Bangkok. So the moral of the story is, get a plane straight to Koh Samui ( or Phuket if you’re going to the west coast). Flights to Thailand are often very reasonably priced.

Transport on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao.

Once we got to the island we had a fabulous time. The ferry dropped us off in Koh Phangan’s main town of Thong Sala. There is no public transport on Koh Phangan and Koh Tao. Most tourists get around on the informally organised Songtaows, pick-up trucks with seats on the back. We decided to rent a Jeep to get around. From memory it was about $35/day which is not normally within our budget, but we decided it was worth it to be more independent and flexible with our movements. Motor scooters are cheap to rent but they suddenly become very expensive if you have an accident and cause any damage. We’ve seen several injured tourist riders during our island stays and decided we were less likely to have an accident in a car. Before taking off in your rental, it is a good idea to take photos of it with your smart phone so the rental dealers don’t claim you caused any scapes or dings when you return it. I have to admit that I did rent a motor scooter later on Koh Tao. It was certainly very convenient and I just took it very slowly and cautiously and fortunately had no dramas.

Where to Stay

One advantage of not being directly accessible by plane is that Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are less developed and busy than Koh Samui. This appealed to us. Koh Phangan’s best beaches are on it’s east coast. Not being into the party scene we avoided Haad Rin. Instead we headed north-east to Thong Nai Pan Yai which has a gorgeous beach and quieter, more relaxed vibe. We loved our stay at the Dreamland Resort. After 5 days of relaxing and swimming we drove up the west coast and enjoyed a few nights at the Phangan Utopia Resort, which sits atop a hill overlooking the sea.

Utopia, Thailand

It didn’t really matter that it wasn’t close to the beach (because the west coast beaches are very average c.f the east coast) because it had a lovely pool and a scenic view. The restaurant was excellent and we especially loved the view out over the sea at night. The lights of hundreds of fishing boats tinkle on the horizon. It is sublime.

We enjoyed Koh Tao but not as much as Koh Phangan. We had gone there for the snorkelling but for some reason the sea was unseasonably choppy and so the visibility was disappointing. 15 minutes boat ride ride from Koh Tao is the tiny, stunning island of Nangyuan. It would have to be one of the most beautiful islands on the planet but unfortunately it is completely overrun with tourists. I know I’m one of them but still, I was expecting an idyllic island and it was not.

I think we were just unlucky with the snorkelling conditions when we went to Koh Tao and I wouldn’t put anyone off from going there. But if it was a choice of visiting Koh Phangan or Koh Tao I would choose Phangan.

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